The preliminaries are out of the way, and the serious business of conference play is about to commence in the world of college basketball. And it is only with conference play that we can really come to grips with how teams stack up against their league foes.
College basketball scheduling is such that there is enormous disparity in the difficulty of non-conference slates. Whether because of varying philosophies among coaches, or because of logistical and budgetary concerns, Team A in Conference X may well have played a dramatically easier suite of opponents than Team B. Their overall records, therefore, may actually tell us very little about the teams’ comparative quality.
Nevertheless, it is fun to take a stab at making sense of conference teams and their merits on the eve of conference clashes, and that is what we propose to do below, bearing in mind that Big 12 power rankings on December 28 may differ dramatically from those rankings on February 28.
1. Baylor (12-0)
The Bears lost a boatload of talent from last year’s team and were not reckoned a strong Big 12 title contender before the season started. Now, however, on the strength of an undefeated march through non-conference play that includes quality wins over Louisville, Oregon and Xavier, along with very respectable triumphs over Virginia Commonwealth and Michigan State, Baylor looks like the class of the Big 12.
Seven-footer Jo Lual-Acuil leads the nation in blocked shots with over four per contest, while 6-foot-10 forward Jonathan Motley is having an All Big 12 season.
2. Kansas (11-1)
Perennial Big 12 champ Kansas began the season with a loss to a very good Indiana squad, and has since run the table. Among KU’s victims were then No. 1 Duke, Georgia and Stanford.
Point guard Frank Mason is having a sensational season with 20 points, five rebounds and six assists per game, while preseason Big 12 Player of the Year pick Josh Jackson averages 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists per outing.
Strangely enough, however, the Jayhawks shoot an abysmal 59 percent (No. 344 nationally) from the free throw line. I that number holds, it will cost the Jayhawks at least two games in Big 12 play.
3. Oklahoma State (10-2)
Another surprise team is Oklahoma State under first-year head man Brad Underwood. The Cowboys have two losses: a blowout against then No. 4 North Carolina, and a one-point road decision to a good Maryland squad. On the flipside, OSU has knocked off a reasonably good Georgetown team along with Wichita State, which is probably a bit better than the Hoyas.
OSU is led by point guard Jawun Evans, who is probably the Big 12’s best player right now. He averages 20 points, three rebounds, five assists and over two steals per contest. He’s joined in the backcourt by sharpshooter Phil Forte.
OSU’s 93 points per game is No. 3 nationally. Also No. 3 is Oklahoma State’s 21 forced turnovers per contest.
4. West Virginia (11-1)
The Mountaineers are an intimidating team because they play such stifling defense. WVU is No. 7 in scoring defense, No. 31 in field goal percentage defense, No. 1 in steals per game, and No. 1 in turnovers forced. In other words, a typical Bob Huggins defensive team, only better.
The Mountaineers also have some raccoon-skins on the wall. They knocked off a good Illinois team and whipped Virginia on the road in what is one of the better wins for the Big 12. WVU also, however, lost surprisingly to a marginal Temple squad in Morgantown.
5. Iowa State (8-3)
One of the Big 12’s few disappointments heretofore is Iowa State. The Cyclones were considered a possible threat to Kansas’ supremacy, but have lost three games, one of which was a 14-point setback to a mediocre Iowa club. ISU’s best win is a 73-56 blowout of a good Miami (Fla.) squad.
At No. 314 nationally, the Cyclones are almost as bad at the charity stripe as Kansas.
Iowa State is a classic donut team, with guards Naz Mitrou-Long, Monte Morris, Deonte Burton and Matt Thomas all averaging at least 12 points per contest and shooting a minimum of 35% from 3-point territory.
6. Texas Tech (11-1)
The Red Raiders own a sparkling 11-1 record, but it was attained against one of the weakest non-conference schedules in Division I college hoops. Tech doesn’t have a signature win, with a one-point home victory over Rice and a road triumph over Richmond the best of an indifferent lot. The Red Raiders also lost to Auburn at a neutral site.
Texas Tech’s calling card is balance, with five players averaging double-digit scoring. The Red Raiders are No. 6 nationally in rebound margin, No. 3 in field goal percentage, No. 21 in three-point shooting percentage, and No. 12 in scoring defense. Those look like Sweet 16 stats; it remains to be seen whether Tech can sustain them through the rugged Big 12 grind.
7. Kansas State (11-1)
The Wildcats are a bit like the Red Raiders in that they have fashioned an 11-1 mark against a soft schedule. A victory over Colorado State may be K-State’s most impressive win, while the Wildcats’ one-point loss to Maryland is no reason for shame.
Also like Texas Tech, KSU boasts five players (Barry Brown, D.J. Johnson, Wesley Iwundu, Kamau Stokes and Xavier Sneed) in double-figure scoring.
8. TCU (11-1)
The Horned Frogs are an improved team, but seemingly impressive wins over UNLV and Washington (twice), pall when one actually examines the Runnin’ Rebels and Huskies. The Frogs were also demolished by SMU, the only good team on their non-conference slate.
TCU’s only eye-popping stat is total steals, where the Frogs rank No. 25 nationally.
Forward Kenrich Williams averages 10 points and 10 rebounds per contest
9. Oklahoma (6-5)
The loss of Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins is harmful. So much so that the Sooners, a Final Four team last season, are now arguably the worst team in the Big 12. OU has lost to Northern Iowa, Wisconsin (by 20), Wichita State, Memphis, and Auburn, with their only notable victory a six-point defeat of a solid Clemson club.
Point guard Jordan Woodard has been Oklahoma’s lone bright spot this season. He averages 18 points, five rebounds and four assists per game.
10. Texas (6-6)
The Longhorns are the Big 12’s biggest disappointment so far, having lost six games, and having garnered only one win of note, that a nine-point decision over a mediocre Alabama squad. That said, all of Texas’ losses have been to good teams (Northwestern, Colorado, UTA, Michigan and Arkansas). What’s more the defeats to the Wolverines and Razorbacks were by only three points apiece. Don’t be surprised if UT puts it together and starts winning pretty soon.
At only 30 percent, the Horns are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in America, but they also hold opponents to 30-percent three-point shooting.
Kerwin Roach, who scores 16 points and pulls down five rebounds per outing may be Texas’ top performer to this point.
Upcoming Big 12 Basketball Schedule